Under The Porch: Character Creation

Another benefit to the process not being magic is that I don’t have to dress like this. I mean, seriously, is she going into battle like that?

I’ve just realized one of my characters is a lot smarter than I thought.

He wasn’t much at the beginning. Frankly, I created him because the main character was too isolated. I decided that she needed a sidekick. And that’s all this guy was, especially in the early notes before I thought of a name for him: the Sidekick. An aid to the main character in times of distress. Somebody that she can count on, and also someone she can worry about.

But now, as I cross that 20,000 word threshold, I’m starting to think he’s been going behind my back. Reading books. Learning stuff. Making himself more useful. In a couple of scenes, he might turn out to be indispensable*. Maybe he worries that, if he’s not, I’ll murder him George R.R. Martin -style. I still might. But now I’ll feel like I’m killing a real person, not a cardboard stand-in.

We like to say, as writers, that our characters do their own things. They develop on their own. Which is at least half bullshit. Unless you have multiple personalities or a colonizing alien intelligence living in your brain, it’s just you up there, and all you’re hearing are the echoes of your own thoughts coming back from some unimaginable distance.

But, like a lot of things writers lie about, there’s a seed of truth in it. We probably don’t think about the characters. I sure as hell didn’t devote much brain time to the Sidekick. At least not consciously. But the under-brain, the part of my mental equipment that’s absorbed thousands of stories**, knew that he had to be something. So it pushed him out of the darkness under the porch inside my head, and he appeared into the light of conscious thought as if by magic. Then he hung around until I noticed him and stuck him where he needed to be in the story and, just like that, I had my Sidekick. Whose name is Vik, by the way. I didn’t think of that, either. It came with him.

But it wasn’t magic. It was just me.

Now, maybe that makes it less impressive for some of you. You want the magic back. You want the font of unimaginable creativity. But, to me, the idea that all that shit comes from me—and from every writer—only makes it cooler. All that stuff is inside our heads somewhere. There are thousands of characters in the wings of my imagination, just waiting until I need them.

All they need is their moment.

*Really, he should, or he’s just dead weight. But it’s weird to find it happening without planning it.

**The whole time I was writing this, I’m imagining the under-brain to be somewhere in my occipital lobe. Dunno why. It just feels like that’s where the ideas come from.

Monday Challenge: 4 AM On The Bathroom Floor

God damn it, if you knock over the BBQ while stealing my neighbour, at least put it back! Assholes.

Nothing good ever happens when you wake up suddenly and unexpectedly at four AM.

I don’t care what your life is like, if you’re not intending to wake up at that time and you do, some shit is going down. A phone call from jail. That worrying knock at the door. The feeling that something is very, very wrong.

Or, if you’re me, the food you ate several hours before rising from its bodily tomb with a vengeance.

I was thinking about the nature of four AM as I was lying on the bathroom floor very early Sunday, feeling the nausea eventually turn into a migraine.* Partially because I had nothing else to do once I finished re-reading all the comics I keep in the bathroom, partially because I’ve decided to turn all the random crap that happens in my life into ‘research’.**

I came to the conclusion that it’s not just the circumstances. There’s something about four AM that sets off a reaction in our heads. It’s like a short hand for ‘something bad is going to happen’. Like sunrise being used as a symbol of new beginnings. Waking up unexpectedly at four am, in the darkest armpit of the morning, is the symbol of something fucking up. The machine of your life gives a lurch.

It’s probably a great place to start a story.

So, Monday Challenge, which was technically conceived on a bathroom floor at Ass O’Clock Sunday morning***, is this: wake your character up at 4 am. Something has happened to get them out of bed, and it’s nothing good. What is it? The knock at the door? The explosion outside the house? The baby crying? Or the aliens landing in the back patio knocking over the barbecue?

On your mark. Get set….write!

*That’s just how my body rolls.
**Hey, you deal with shit your way, I’ll deal with it mine.
***Probably not the only thing conceived that way.

Monday Challenge: Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies

The lesser known “Pole vaulter falls, everybody dies” never really caught on.

You ever read a book and wonder how in the name of God’s most holy asshole it got published? I don’t mean the ones that you, personally, have a problem with; those are a dime a dozen and not every book is going to appeal to your taste. I mean the ones that are genuinely, deeply flawed. Not literary flawed, either, the kind that in the right light can sometimes be mistaken for artistic vision. I’m talking about the big problems: a character that disappears halfway through, a major plot point that’s never resolved, a sinkhole-style plot gap that opens under the rest of an otherwise acceptable book and sucks it down into the nether realm.

Or the ending. Somehow that’s the worst. It’s like a betrayal of all that time you spent on the rest of the goddamn book. You’ve got to stick the landing, folks. It’s not over until the covers are closed.

I distinctly remember being in bed with the Snowman when he finished a particular book. He turned the last page, read, blinked, and said, “What the hell was that?” In bewildered and increasingly irritated tones.

Probably not what the author was going for. *

You’ve read at least one. So have I. And while the initial urge might be to throw that book so hard that it leaves quite an impressive dent in the drywall**, I’m trying to wreak less havoc on the home lately. Hey, some places you can go full-on kaiju, like a daycare, and some you can’t.

So, in the interests of not having to go to Home Depot again this week, I present the following alternative:

Monday Challenge: Pick a book or story that didn’t end right and write the ending it should have had. According to you. If it’s really irredeemable, then ‘rocks fall, everybody dies’ might be your first instinct, but push through it. There was something that made you read that godawful word abortion to begin with. What was it? What promise was made that got you hooked? Then write what the resolution of that promise should have been.

Just like the Olympics, kittens***: you’ve got to stick the landing.

*Though you never can tell with some.
**Three points if you have to plaster it afterwards.

***Now I want the internet to provide me with Olympic Kittens. Or Kitten Olympics.

Monday Challenge: Places and Faces

Can you feel the hate?

Today’s writing challenge is a shameless homage to one I did in a writing workshop a couple of years ago. This post captures the essence of it, but for the non-clickers, it was about writing places. New ways to look at settings. I learned a lot of stuff in that workshop that I still use. When it comes to writing techniques, I am like the little old lady with a pocket full of string: never throw anything away that might, eventually, turn out to be useful.

Usually, when I think of places having souls, I picture urban environments. Maybe it’s the concentration of people, or the very human marks we leave on the landscape, but I just find it easier to put a face to the place. To figure out who that neighbourhood is, not what. But I feel like stretching out today, so let’s look at non-human habitations. They don’t have to be rural or isolated, but the human presence shouldn’t factor in.

Monday Challenge: Take an inhuman landscape and tell me who they would be if they were a person. Discard human furnishings like buildings and roads and nuclear power plants; tell me about the land and the sky.

For example, if I was to look out my window, the backyard thus viewed would likely turn into an icy, cruel, androgynous figure with a smile like a razor blade and long, blackened nails tap-tapping on the glass. Come out, it says. You have to come out sometime.

Like fuck I do.

I showed you mine. Now show me yours.

6 Things All Writers Should Start, Plus A Journey Song

Either stabbing practice, or a giant pencil sharpener. (Photo credit: wikipedia)

1. Start being weird. I know a lot of you have already gotten a head start on this one, but for those of you who are still hesitant to dip your toes into the waters of weird, allow me to give you a friendly shove into the deep end.
For starters, read the bit from Wednesday about stopping the fucking timidity. Apply that to yourself.
I once got my ass stuck in a tire swing and had to be rescued by the fire department. I trip while traversing the perfectly flat floors of the local mall, as well as malls abroad. I am not cool. And I am happy to not be cool, because cool by its very nature means giving a crap about the opinions of strangers who, apparently, exist solely to judge your social appearances.
Fuck those guys, real or imaginary. Be weird. Be different. Be you. And maybe then you’ll start to figure out what you want to write.

2. Start supporting each other. I don’t mean siding with people you know are an entire bag of dicks* just because they’re writers. I mean not actively tearing each other apart. Especially on the Internet. Using the relative anonymity of the online world to abuse others is cowardice, and the universe hates a coward, though not as much as I do.
Writing is not a zero sum game; someone else’s success is not had at your expense. So stop being a cock.

3. Start stabbing. Other people, I mean. Not yourself.
I practice Recreational Stabbing a couple of times a week, though at the gym they insist on calling it ‘fencing’. It serves the dual purposes of anger management and weapons skills. And it’s fun. Find your fun, whether it involves pointed objects or not.** All writers need some fun. And the weapons training doesn’t hurt.

4. Start a band. Writing is fucking lonely. But it doesn’t have to be. Find your people, your band, your superhero team with whom you can defeat evil, or at least give it a very stern talking to. They’re out there, somewhere. Some of them may be reading this blog. And, contrary to what some of the more paranoid corners of the internet would have you believe, not all other writers are out to steal your ideas. Only some of them, and those ones are easily defeated by feeding them the plot lines to Michael Bay movies.

5. Start DIY cybernetic implants. *Check notes more closely* No. Sorry. This is my to-do list. Anyone know where I can buy robot parts?

6. Don’t Stop Start Believing. Because Journey rocks.
Writing can be a long road. And the road to publishing can be even longer and more filled with potholes which are in turned filled with scorpions. So it’s easy to get discouraged. To get cynical.
But cynicism is like your mom: easy. And it doesn’t get you anywhere except to a pile of excuses filled with reasons why you can’t do shit: The industry is dead. It’s all who you know. I’m not willing to touch an agent’s Fun Zone, so of course I can’t get a contract.
Stop that. Start believing again. Not with the rosy-eyed glow of innocence, but the kind of hard-edged, diamond-tipped belief that will drive you through disappointment and failure. Believe in what you’re doing enough to get better at it, because belief does not replace hard work. But it does make the work go better.

**Though if it doesn’t, I don’t even know you anymore, man.

5 Things For “Aspiring”* Writers To Fucking Stop, and 1 To Start

See this guy? He’s thinking big.

1. Stop with the fucking timidity. Who’s had the following conversation?
Random Person: So, what do you do for work/fun?
    You: I…kind of…um….write. Maybe. Sort of.
    Random Person: Really? What are you writing about?
    You: *throws a drink in their face and hides*
I have.  And it has to stop.
Don’t admit you’re a writer. Be proud of it. Take all those insecurities and throttle them with your bare hands before stuffing their nearly-lifeless corpses under the floorboards and setting the floor on fire. They’re dragging you back like the Sad Demons of Despair.
Be bold. Be brave. The universe hates a coward.

2. Stop bitching about the job. No one wants to hear your rant about the gatekeepers, or that awful book that sold a billon copies, or why traditional publishing is dead just before you get to it. Yes, there are disappointments lying in wait out there for all writers. Yes, you will be rejected, criticized, told you suck, and otherwise verbally spat upon.** That’s the deal.
We are all going through it. And while complaining might feel like it’s helping, it’s not. You’re just dragging yourself down. Focus on solutions instead. They’ll get you a lot further.***

3. Stop looking for Bertholt’s Magnificent Spell of Writing. The Snowflake, the Index Card, The Reverse Outline, The Muse Fondler****…these sound more like sex positions than writing styles. And, like sex positions, there’s nothing wrong with trying it, if both you and the manuscript are willing. But there is no magic solution. What worked for That Smug Best-Selling Author may not work for you. And it certainly won’t work in the same way. This is because you are individuals instead of writer robots.
So, try the new stuff, with the ink and the chicken feathers and the strategically placed cleaning supplies. But do it because it’s fun and it’s something you want to try, not because you think it will solve everything.

4. Stop with the coffee. Ha! Trick! You should never stop with the coffee! Onwards to heart-exploding heights!

5. Stop making excuses. No more, “I want to write but I don’t have time.” If these are the words that tumble from your mouth at the first mention of writing, then you don’t want to be a writer. You want to have written. Nothing wrong with that, but stop fooling yourself.
Or, if you protest at my unfair statements, prove me wrong. Commit. Put a ring on it.

Which brings us to:

1. Start writing. Today.

*It gets sarcastic quotes for a reason. Either write or don’t. Do or do not; there is no try.
**Hopefully just verbally, though. If someone spits on you for real, then feel free to complain. Though you’d probably be better served by jamming a boot up their ass.
***This should be a rule for all social interactions, not just writers. No complaining unless you are going to offer a solution. If you don’t have one, then don’t get pissed off when someone else offers one.
****All right, I made this one up. But now I want to make my own writing method and call it this.

Monday Challenge: Show Your Teeth

Yes, button. It is bullshit.

Everyone has a snapping point. I don’t care how well-adjusted they are, I don’t care if they’re the sweetest person alive, I don’t care if they’re an angel stuffed with rainbows and cotton candy who rides a hybrid unicorn*—everyone has a point where their patience, their strength, whatever keeps them in control and on the beam runs out. The place where they say this far…no further.

Of course, it’s not the same for every person. Some people snap after the first raised hand, others will ignore that for ten years…until that hand is raised against their children. Some people lose their shit at any criticism, even the constructive kind; others will take criticism but not a dismissal. Some never seem to let it get to them, but are letting the pressure slowly build like water behind a dam. Others live so often on the cusp of explosion you might wonder if they have any self-control at all.

If your characters have no limits, then you don’t know how to push them. Because fiction is, in many ways, like that sibling who finds out what bothers you and then just pushes your buttons. Over and over again. Until things reach a head and someone ends up grounded.** Fiction is about finding the goddamn buttons and pushing them.

Writers really are a giant bag of dicks most of the time.

Monday Challenge: write the moment when someone finally, after much provocation, snaps. Do they cry? Do they Hulk out and smash something? Do they fight? Do they argue? Or is there just a quiet click somewhere inside as an internal spring breaks and whatever powers them runs loose?

*Good for Fantasyland Knights of The Ponyboy Order, good for the planet.
**Why, yes, I do have an older brother. How did you know?

Monday Challenge: Hey, I’m Talking To You!

DIAF, you creepy little git.

It’s amazing that people ever manage to talk.

Ever listened to conversations? I mean really listened? Half the time, you’d swear that the people involved aren’t even talking about the same thing. They wander, repeat themselves, subtly try to shift the conversation back to their own concerns, forget what they were about to say…

Considering that we’re a species that prizes communication, I don’t know how we get anything done.

But in fiction it’s different.* In fiction, people are on point. Not so much that they’re Conversation Robots**, but it’s a little more controlled. And it has to be; fiction, like spice, must flow.

One way you can do that is to make your character’s voices distinctive. You should know it’s them talking without a dialogue tag; leave out the “he said, she said, it said” and you’d still have a pretty good idea of who was speaking. It’s not all about accents, either, though that can play a part. Better way to get there is to use grammar and sentence structure. Which is what an accent really is, but never mind that. Also: try using distinctive words. I know people who use ‘listen’***, ‘massive’, ‘really’, and ‘you see’ more than most. Kind of like verbal tics.

A great way to polish this skill? Poach from your friends. Because you talk to them on a regular basis, you’re more likely to notice distinctive speech patterns. For example, if someone wanted to imitate me, they’d have to drop pronouns at the beginning of a sentence. “Just the way things are” instead of “It’s just the way things are.”**** And swear. More swearing.

Your Monday Challenge: write two characters talking—or more than two, if you’re feeling ambitious—with no dialogue tags. Make their voices as distinctive as possible so that the tags aren’t needed. You should not get the speakers confused with each other. I don’t care what they talk about—death, taxes, who ate all the snacks, the problem with these love-lorn robots all over the place—but make sure they talk as themselves.

You have your marching orders. Dismissed. *Salutes*

*Most of the time. There are authors who use the hyper-realistic model of conversations, but it’s rarely pulled off well. Usually it just confuses the reader. Conversations in fiction are conversations distilled.
**Like Conversation Hearts, but more metal-ly. DOES THAT UNIT FEEL POSITIVELY TOWARD THIS UNIT QUERY.
***Like that goddamn fairy in Legend of Zelda.
****What can I say? I like efficiency.

Monday Challenge: That House Is Looking At Me Funny

This house probably has a panel van it wants to show you. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s talk about places.

If you spend time in a place, you might start to feel like it has…something. Maybe a soul, if you’re feeling like a hippie today. Maybe a spiritus loci. Maybe just a tingling in your spider sense.  But, whatever you call it, some places feel, in your heart and related organs, like more than assemblages of concrete and wood and dust. They have a presence.  It could be the amount of time you spend there, or the people you associate with it, or the things that happen within those walls, if there are walls. Or it could just be a feeling, without logic that you could use to explain it to someone else.

I used to make playlists for writing based on characters. I still have some of those, but lately I’ve been making ones based on settings. The garage where a character works. The garage that she owns later on. The bar where they gather. The lair of the enemy. The streets where a few of them grew up. The smoking crater where the truth finally came out.

Draw inspiration from your own life. Where do you go that has a soul, even if it’s not a very nice one? Maybe your work feels like a grey vampire, stealing your life. Maybe your home feels like a flock of squabbling crows, noisy and intrusive. Maybe your favourite coffee shop feels like a pretty girl curled up in her coziest sweater with a good book, ready to relax.

Settings have character. They do more than just provide a place for your characters to stand while they work out whatever problems you’ve set them. They add tone, they help or hinder, they create a feeling.

And they could use a little love from you today.

Monday Challenge: if a setting—city, street, house, room—were a person, what kind of person would they be? What would they look like, sound like, smell like? How would they act? What kind of music do they listen to, or do they hate music? Are they on your side? What are they hiding in their pockets/under their floorboards?*

What do they want?

*I realize the metaphors are getting mixed now. Though I like the idea of a person with floorboards. Sounds vaguely steampunk.

Strap In And Grab Your Important Bits: Planning Your Year In Writing

Get in, loser.

All right, we’ve talked about ideas and talked about getting excited. Now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Except we’re dealing with the imagination, so I suppose we should be getting down to…brass dendrites? Brass gut flora? Something brass, anyway. * We need a plan.**

Here is your plan:

1) Define your goal.

2) Figure out the steps along the way.

3) Fucking do it.

I recognize that some clarification may be in order.

Part of your plan is going to depend on your goal. Want to write a novel in 2014? Figure out how long you think it’ll be. If you’ve got no fucking clue, guess. I usually say 100,000 words. Why? It’s a nice round number. And it translates to roughly 400 pages of a paperback book. A good length for fantasy or horror, which is what I tend to write. I’ve written shorter and longer, but this is my benchmark.

Got a length? Good. Now figure out how long you have. Got a year? Then that means you have to write…273.972 words a day. Better round that up to 274, just so you don’t stop mid-noun. Not much, is it? Even assuming that you’ll only write five days a week, that’s only 385 words a day. You can do that. So you do. There we are: plan set. All you have to do is colour it in a little.

But what if your goal isn’t to write something, but to publish? Well, assuming you have a finished manuscript—you do have a finished manuscript, don’t you? If not, finishing that is the first step, so back the fuck up—then start researching places it could find a home. Agents or publishers for a novel, magazines or anthologies for short fiction. Make a list. Write a letter. Start sending. When it gets rejected from one place, move to the next on the list.*** Repeat.

And what if, like yours truly, your goal for the year involves not writing something entirely new, but editing an existing project? It’s not such a clear cut goal then, but it’s still definable. I will come back to this in a later post–actually, I’ll come back to most of these in later posts–but for now, here’s the bare bones: go through the manuscript with a red pen; make a big list of what needs to change****; make a plan for those changes and figure out how long they will take. Good rule of thumb for editing? Unless you are very experienced at it, it will take three times longer than you think. At least. You think you can have the changes written in a month? Budget three. If you get done early, then, hey, happy handshakes and big bottles of booze all around. But budget more time than you think. Trust me.

Making a plan—especially one that you figured out the timetable for, and not one you got out of a book that claims anyone can write a novel in two weeks or can be published in three—keeps you on track. It breaks down the bigger goal—Write A Novel, Get Published, Edit The Unmerciful Fuck Out Of That Story Until It No Longer Resembles A Half-Digested Dictionary—into smaller ones—write 500 words today, send out a query letter today, figure out the end of the first chapter today. It grounds you in reality. Which, for people who work inside their own heads, is not at all a bad thing.

Some caveats:

1) Goals change. It happens. Sometimes you think you’re working toward one thing, but realize halfway through that you’d be better off working on this other thing. It’s cool. Don’t panic. Just re-evaluate. Sticking with something that’s no longer what you want is a waste of time. Just make sure it’s really a change and not just you giving up. I suggest strategic reevaluations at three, six, and nine months. That way, you have enough time to get in there and have a go, but also ample opportunity to make course corrections if they’re required.

2) Don’t forget the all important Step Three. Fucking do it. Or all this talk is just masturbation—might make you feel good but it sure as hell doesn’t accomplish anything. You can abandon plans, you can change goals, you can fling yourself out of the literary airlock and into the great vacuum of I Don’t Know What I’m Doing….as long as you keep moving. Plans are good, steps are good, but at the end of the day, the only part that matters is strapping into the launch seat and putting the pedal to the floor.

Now go forth and conquer.

*I really do think like this. It’s amazing I get anything done.
**If you’ve ever read A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett, you know the importance of a good PLN. If you haven’t, go read it.
***This approach assumes no simultaneous submissions, but if your market allows them, then go for it. Just keep a list so you don’t forget what went where.
****Don’t be upset if it says ‘everything’. Mine does.